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Alexander Kniazev (‘cello), Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
Warner Classics 2564-63946-2


This cool, ironic, expertly played account of these often-coupled sonatas comes from Russian performers, but with a decidedly French sense of detachment and wit. So these are very modern, unsentimental interpretations; their subtlety and discreet expressivity grow on the listener. Both Kniazev nor Lugansky have an understated, almost self-deprecating virtuosity; those who like romantic music heart-on-sleeve should look elsewhere.


Why, laments the booklet, are there so few great ‘cello sonatas? There is no obvious musicological reason; indeed, Donald Tovey, in classic pronouncements made long ago, pointed out that it is much easier to write balanced music for ‘cello and piano than for violin and piano, given the ‘cello's more helpful range distributed in both treble and bass.


In the classic works, there are only a few examples (such as the finale of the Brahms Op 38, where the fugue gives the ‘cello only, obviously, one part and the piano has two) where the piano overwhelms its partner. Otherwise, though there might be problems of balance for the recording engineer, there are not for composer or performers.


Perhaps it is not so much musical as historical, there have just been more virtuoso, high-profile violinists, anxious for repertoire and able to offer commissions. These two works, not obvious bedfellows, find themselves frequently coupled for want of more appropriate companions.


The first movement of the Chopin could be, in composition and tonality, an anticipation of Fauré, the scherzo is pure Schumann. Lugansky's finger technique is especially impressive on the repeated notes of the latter. There are moments in the Rachmaninov, notably at the start of the second movement and the finale, when Kniazev's lightness of sound robs the music of forward flow, but in general his silvery tone matches Lugansky's precision well. Vocalise is frequently arranged and here appears as a bonus in Wallfisch's transcription.


If you want this combination of works, this CD is now top of the list and easily surpasses the recent Walton /Owen on Somm. Those in favour of a meatier, more overtly soul-searching, gushing approach, are likely to prefer Rostropovich (with Argerich in Chopin, Horowitz in Rachmaninov), and among recent historic issues the Edmund Kurtz / William Kapell Rachmaninov, available again on Naxos Historical, though with Kapell seemingly relegated to the next room.


Production values are typically high on this CD, important in works notoriously hard to get right for recorded balance. Overall, an excellently successful recording.


Ying Chang